From this week on ‘Andy’s Writing Tips’, I’m trying something new. I’m going to introduce a passage from a particular writer each week then spend Tuesday to Friday looking at the some of the techniques that he or she uses that you can try in your own work. Who better to learn from, after all, than good writers? The texts won’t always be by great novelists, however, but will also include newspaper articles and non-fiction works. They will help readers of the blog see examples of the range of writing types, from descriptive and narrative writing, to formal and argumentative writing.
Enough of the sales pitch, anyway. Let’s get on to Steinbeck. Many of you will be familiar with Steinbeck from school. As one of the Great American Novelists of the 20th Century he is much read in American Schools and Colleges, his Depression era novels being the best known: The Grapes of Wrath and the shorter Of Mice and Men. The latter is used extensively – some might say excessively – in schools in the UK, too, being the most used novel for GCSE English. The reason for this is simple: it’s short and easier to read than most other novels on the National Curriculum options. Not that many teachers complain – it’s a great read after all. He depicts harsh environments and desperate situations, but his writing is warm, humorous and, in parts, very funny too.
In Travels with Charley Steinbeck himself comes across as warm, humorous and funny. It is travelogue of his journey across America, East to West. He travels in a pick-up truck with a converted trailer on it, and his companion, Charley, is a poodle. I never would have had Steinbeck down as a poodle man, but there you are. It’s a fascinating book for Steinbeck’s descriptions of a changing country.
Steinbeck is a master of the humble pastoral description or the semi-pastoral description. He’s not a poet like Wordsworth, wandering around great landscapes experiencing exalted feelings; he’s a normal man with normal feelings, describing what he sees very well, and he can describe the back of a factory as well as he can describe a corn field.
In the following description, Steinbeck is walking his dog on the Wisconsin Dells when he comes upon a strange sight:
As the evening deepened, I walked with Charley among his mountains of delight to the brow of the hill and looked down on the little valley below. It was a disturbing sight. I thought too much driving had distorted my vision or addled my judgment, for the dark earth below seemed to move and pulse and breath. It was not water but it rippled like a black liquid. I walked quickly down the hill to iron out the distortion. The valley floor was carpeted with turkeys, it seemed like millions of them, so densely packed that they covered the earth. It was a great relief. Of course, this was a reservoir for Thanksgiving.
To mill so close together is in the nature of turkeys in the evening. I remembered how in the ranch in my youth the turkeys gathered and roosted in clots in the cypress trees, out of reach of wildcats and coyotes, the only indication I know of that turkeys have any intelligence at all. To know them is not to admire them, for they are vain and hysterical. They gather in vulnerable groups and then panic at rumors. They are subject to all the sicknesses of other fowl, together with some they have invented. Turkeys seem to be manic-depressive types, gobbling with blushing wattles, spread tails and scraping wings in amorous bravado at one moment and huddled in craven cowardice the next. It is hard to see how they can be related to their wild, suspicious cousins. But here in their thousands they carpeted the earth waiting to lie on their backs on the platters of America.
P115, Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck, Mandarin, London, 1991
Surely that has whet your appetite for more (Steinbeck, that is, not Turkey) and we’ll be looking at some of the techniques in this passage through the posts this week. It would be remiss of me, however, to let a post on descriptive writing pass, without recommending this post by a disturbed young man who can, when he’s in the mood, pull off a nice bit of pastoral description. Which just leaves me to issue you today’s writing challenge. Maybe those Turkeys have unsettled me, but I’m feeling mean-spirited today…
Write some sentences about a movie star you don’t particularly like using the following words and phrases: addle, distort/distortion, the only indication I know of that, subject to, amorous bravado, craven cowardice.